BANGKOK — Thai officials are taking their first baby steps to open the market for marijuana amid intense interest from pot aficionados worldwide monitoring a country renowned for the potency of its locally grown weed.
Unwilling to allow the public to get baked or profit from recreational marijuana, the government this month has instead presented its first pharmaceutical THC and cannabidiol (CBD) oils, tablets, oral sprays, chocolate wafers and traditional potions after legalizing medical cannabis.
Although the government displays a deep ambivalence about loosening the legal reins on marijuana use, Thai researchers say they hope to draw on centuries-old folk recipes gathered from rural traditional healers, who have been discreetly treating villagers with illegal marijuana-infused concoctions for ages.
Some worry that the caution could hold back Thailand in a global market where it would seem to have a built-in edge. The Government Pharmaceutical Organization and a handful of other facilities are growing and producing small amounts of marijuana for medical use, but nowhere near what is needed. The GPO is delivering 6,500 tiny bottles of its oils to the Health Ministry for final-stage cancer patients and recently started growing an additional 20,000 plants, the first official deployment of medicinal marijuana since laws were eased last year.
Researchers have not been able to make enough doses because the government demands most marijuana research and production be conducted inside Thailand, which lacks qualified staff and large-scale cannabis facilities.
Officials do not want to import foreign medical cannabis because they fear it could flood Thailand’s market and snatch profits from government organizations and licensed facilities. As a result, tens of thousands of Thai patients are waiting for hospitals and traditional medical practitioners to prescribe and distribute made-in-Thailand cannabis medicine.
Despite increasing political support for more liberal pot laws, marijuana still cannot be grown, produced or sold in Thailand except for medical use with permission from the government, which can also import and export medical cannabis products.
“How can we produce enough cannabis-based medicines when there are only a few places authorized to grow the plant?” asked Daycha Siripatra, who distributes free marijuana oil to cancer patients.
“That will force users and medical practitioners to rely on authorized suppliers, who can manipulate the price,” Mr. Daycha said in May.
To boost supplies, the Government Pharmaceutical Organization plans to import some CBD oil from abroad until Thailand can produce enough domestically.
After recent parliamentary elections, the modest-sized Bhumjaithai (Proud to be Thai) party’s leader, Anutin Charnvirakul, became health minister and deputy prime minister. Mr. Anutin, whose party is now one of the biggest forces in Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s 19-party governing coalition, campaigned to legalize recreational marijuana for government sales, but not enough other officials agree.
“We would like to provide medical tour packages, such as detox, Thai massage and other wellness courses that use marijuana,” said Tourism and Sports Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakan, who belongs to Mr. Anutin’s party.
Still, proud of the tiny amount they created, the government organized a visit for journalists this month to the new, sparsely equipped Medical Cannabis Research Institute in the Rangsit University’s College of Pharmacy.
University staff unlocked a gray metal safe and displayed 40 kilograms of dried marijuana confiscated during police drug raids. Each rectangular kilo of “cannabis raw material” was hard-pressed and wrapped in clear plastic.
A few months ago, officials said, such confiscated marijuana was useless for medical purposes because it was often contaminated with insecticide, fertilizer, heavy metals or fungus.
Researchers realized, however, that they had to use seized contraband because Thailand was unable to grow enough marijuana quickly under strict purity controls.
“If some samples are contaminated, we will not use it,” a researcher said.
They also displayed a “subcritical solvent extractor” and a “butane extraction” machine, both invented by Thais, to pull THC and CBD, key medicinal components of the hemp plant, from marijuana.
The motivation is more economic than psychedelic. If the laws are relaxed, then impoverished villagers could collectively buy the refrigerator-sized extractors and profit from demand, officials say.
The extractors produced what the university called its first controlled drug: sesame-based cannabis oil.
One tiny bottle included 500 milligrams of THC and 100 milligrams of CBD, enough for 600 drops. Two drops a day are to be placed under the tongue.
A crack now can be seen in Thailand’s official ambivalence over reopening the long-banned marijuana market.
“This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition or any disease” and has “not been evaluated by the [Thai] Food and Drug Administration,” the label on the bottle reads.
University researchers have injected THC and CBD into pink, swollen tumors induced in live mice to determine whether cannabis inhibits cancer growth.
Healthy mice under the influence were observed negotiating chambers and mazes to determine whether cannabis reduces anxiety and offers other benefits.
In one test, a mouse was placed into a chamber with 16 holes in the floor. Inquisitive, drugged mice explored more holes in three minutes than shy, sober mice, indicating “anti-anxiety activity.”
The university’s small, sunny rooftop garden displayed 72 leafy marijuana plants in various stages of growth. A glass house encased 36 plants fed by “root spa” watering, while the other 36 stood outdoors and absorbed “drip” watering.
“We grow without any chemicals. No pesticides. No chemical fertilizer,” a grower said.
The plants sprouted from seeds of unknown origin, recovered from confiscated crops.
“We don’t know if they got the seeds from Thailand or from a neighboring country,” researcher Orapan Hussarang said. “We don’t know exactly” what plant strains are growing. “It’s just unknown.”
Some Thai labs imported documented seeds from the Netherlands or elsewhere, Ms. Orapan said. Rangsit University also displayed its own cannabis oils, which include herbal ingredients used in Thai cuisine and tonics. Stomach bloating, stress disorders, pain and other problems also can be treated with these elixirs. Some can be massaged into the skin.
“These [oils] are used when your body is feeling too warm, or if you have extreme weight loss from disease, or to promote sleep,” researcher Somporn Phonkrathok said.